Gears 5: A Look Inside the Single-Player
The Gears of War franchise has managed to make it to a point few video game franchises make it to: A fifth main series game. The Xbox flagship series has returned and it’s apparently bigger than it’s ever been with its story mode and other features claiming to be largest yet. This is a moderately significant statement, considering the Gears franchise has been a linear one in terms of its gameplay. To shake that linear formula up, some rather drastic changes would have to be made. To improve and grow, changes have to happen. So hopefully, those changes are for the better. * Please note that this is a review of the campaign and single-player content with those being the deciding factors for this review. *
Gears 5’s campaign follows Kait Diaz’s story but you wouldn’t know it when first starting the game. It begins by putting you in the shoes of the last game’s frontman JD Fenix.
While the first act does a good job at taking you through a few tutorials and mechanics key to the gameplay, it’s also incredibly misleading. The first act feels like good old fashion Gears gameplay with linear, objective-based progression with a few added tweaks. At the center of it all is the cover-based combat. Fights can be exhilarating at certain points, and a little frustrating at others, especially on higher difficulties. The controls feel good, whether you’re playing on keyboard and mouse or with a controller. Though, movement feels more intuitive on an Xbox gamepad while shooting is a bit more satisfying with a mouse. It ultimately just comes down to your preference.
Along with your usual band of human allies, you’re also accompanied by a droid who brings a range of different utilities to the table. The droid, who first starts out as Dave and then Jack, later on, gives the player several abilities to play with. These abilities range from a cloaking device to a barrier field to a blinding flash attack.
Once the first act ends, the game takes a turn by not only changing the player character from JD to Kait but also going from a linear style to a more open-world one. When first exploring the snowy landscapes of the first sandbox-style area of the game, I appreciated this direction for the game. I’ve always been a player who enjoyed exploration in video games and I was ready to explore this world thoroughly. The skiff in which you handle to get around the land also controls very well. It makes for quite the fun mode of transportation.
As I continued to explore though, I quickly realized just how barren and empty the game’s world really is. There are no inhabitants to stumble upon outside of missions. No wildlife besides birds. No interesting events outside of the scripted ones that happen during missions. It all feels very shallow. There are collectibles and modified versions of basic weapons in the game called relic weapons to find. Other than that, there’s nothing that’s incredibly interesting about Gears 5‘s world.
Even the side missions and main missions make little use of the game’s world. You enter a location marked by a flag, mow down hordes of Swarm enemies and then walk out of the location back into the open world once more. During these times, the gameplay returns to the linear style. The open-world feels as though it only serves as an interactive space for the player to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ instead of a genuine attempt at expanding the Gears universe and engage with the player. The open-world is a welcome change, in my opinion, it’s very pretty to look at, but if the game does little with it outside of just allowing the player to drive around in it, then it may as well have just stuck with the completely linear formula instead.
Some sections feature stealth opportunities to approach combat encounters. While neat in concept, the execution is a little sloppy. Enemy behavior isn’t adjusted for this type of gameplay, leading to some very wonky and inconsistent player detection at times. Often, patrolling Swarm drones will turn their heads around completely, clearly spotting you but they’ll continue on as if they didn’t see anything. Other times, a firefight will instantly break out.
What’s worse is that even when completing a perfect stealth instance where not one enemy was alerted, the game will still act as though enemies were alerted anyway by sending a warden or scion after the player once every drone has been executed. It does make the ensuing fight easier with the higher-level enemy receiving no support from any allies, but if a firefight was going to happen regardless, it makes taking the stealth route seem pointless. The effort to take out every enemy silently feels wasted. Might as well go in guns blazing every time.
Throughout Gears 5, items called components are used to upgrade Jack’s abilities. Components are found throughout the world in packs of 1 to 5. Every upgrade requires a certain number of components. The better the upgrade, the more components it needs. If you aren’t happy with the upgrades you’ve purchased, the game has the option to respec Jack at any time to redo the upgrade tree.
Completing side missions also rewards the player with a specific upgrade that modifies Jack’s supportive and offensive abilities. Jack’s abilities are used in combat as well as to get past traps and other hazards blocking your progression. In late-game situations, Jack’s abilities almost become necessary to make it through some firefights, especially on higher difficulties. Enemies carrying explosive weapons become one-shotting machines. Sticking your head out of cover for even a second will reward you with a face full of focus fire from every enemy on the battlefield. At times, your AI companions almost seem completely brain-dead. Early in the game, their small contributions may seem encouraging, but later on, they’ll be practically useless. It makes winning an entire firefight single-handedly feel more like a chore at times.
As mentioned, the story of Gears 5 puts Kait front and center. She has a connection to the Locust and she’s desperate to find out what it is.
Overall, the story is serviceable, if a bit unfocused at times. It goes from trying to get the hammer of dawn back online to a personal journey about Kait’s origin and then back to trying to get the hammer of dawn back online. The shift from the first act to the second act is also incredibly jarring. Since the first act places the player in JD’s shoes, you see everything from JD’s perspective. It makes issues like Kait’s headaches feel less like the problem they eventually become when overshadowed heavily by the issue that arises between Kait, Del, and JD that creates a rift between them.
Once the game switches the player to controlling Kait, it comes completely out of the blue. I believe it might’ve been better if the first act was played from Kait’s—or at the very least Del’s—perspective from the start, cut out entirely with any events explained retroactively through in-game character dialogue or just presented as a prologue separate from the main story at hand. I believe this would make the transition smoother and more acceptable. Still, the story is a fun ride. I appreciate what it attempts to do even if some of the choices are a little strange, the execution isn’t the best and the pacing is a little fast.
Gears 5 has a lot going for it. It looks great and in terms of the core gameplay; the combat is exhilarating, the Jack upgrades and different weapons are fun to play around with, and the story is entertaining. These are all qualities that hold the game up quite well. It’s the additional features that make the game feel a little unfocused and not as fleshed out. The open-world aspect isn’t as engaging as it could be, stealth opportunities are inconsistent and unrewarding, and the lack of commitment to either a wholly linear style or open world makes the game feel like its unsure of what it wants to be.
Gears 5 strikes me as a game that didn’t give proper time to some of its more harrowing concepts. It still implements those concepts in an acceptable and manageable way. But I just can’t shake the feeling that it could’ve done a lot more with them than what it does. Ideas feel more like a ‘hey, wouldn’t this be cool/different?’ situation than an actual calculated effort to make something great. Gears 5 is by no means a bad game. What it does as a 3rd-person shooter, it does really well. But all of the things it does outside of that in an attempt to make it better just makes it a little different. And it’s average at them at best.
Gears 5 is out now for Xbox One and PC.
How did you like Gears 5? Leave your comments below! And while you’re at it, check out my last review on Kill la Kill – IF!
Follow James on Twitter @DatBlackGhost.